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Kings 2, Flyers 1: 10 things we learned from a merciful end to disastrous road trip

Philadelphia found a way to make things interesting in the third period, but that couldn't erase the team's poor play in the first forty minutes of the contest.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Morning Observations is a new feature, where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.

  • The Flyers lost this game in the opening forty minutes, and it was poor play from the team's third and fourth lines that was primarily to blame. When the Giroux and Couturier lines were on the ice, the Flyers were able to keep the direction of play at around a break-even point - they traded chances with the Kings, had good and bad shifts. But whenever the lines centered by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Scott Laughton took the ice, it was pure dominance on the part of Los Angeles. The Kings are able to roll four lines with ease, and as a result, were able to fully exploit this huge weakness for Philadelphia.
  • Philadelphia's bottom-six may not have been so easy to exploit had Matt Read been able to provide a positive puck possession weapon for the Laughton line. Instead, coach Dave Hakstol chose to scratch Read, starting seven defensemen and rolling with 11 forwards. The decision to dress seven blueliners was justifiable - after all, Michael Del Zotto and Mark Streit are clearly at less than 100% following their return from injuries. The issue was sitting Read. While the Flyers forward has struggled to light the lamp this season, Read has actually been the team's most effective neutral zone player. Per my tracking, his Neutral Zone Score of 53.24% is a team-high, a full percentage point ahead of second ranked Claude Giroux (51.81%). Read's slick, underappreciated plays are helping the Flyers move the puck into the offensive zone and prevent other teams from getting in on the attack. In addition, Read was having a clear positive impact on the Laughton line, as the trio of Read, Laughton and R.J. Umberger delivered a 54.5% Corsi For percentage in their short time together. Laughton and Umberger without Read, though? Both are below 43.5% on the season. By taking Read out of the lineup, Hakstol removed the driving force behind their recent improvements, and the results were predictably terrible.
  • Still, the Flyers must be credited for their strong play in the third period. Surely, score effects did play a role, as teams trailing by two or more goals in the final period tend to dominate play. But the Kings did not appear to sit back much - they continued their aggressive, disruptive neutral zone tactics and did generate some scoring chances. Philadelphia's execution was simply sharper in the third. They won puck battles in the offensive and defensive zones (a major issue through the first forty minutes) and matched LA's neutral zone aggressiveness with smart reads of their own. The improvement struck me less as score effects driving the improvement in Philadelphia's play, and more that they finally woke up.
  • Radko Gudas' stellar puck possession statistics this season have been difficult to explain, especially since he has brought up the rear in terms of effective zone exits. It's seemingly been a combination of sound neutral zone play and the help of solid puck mover Michael Del Zotto to cover his passing weaknesses that has resulted in Gudas' solid year. Last night, however, was one of Gudas' worst games of the season. His struggles handling the puck cost the Flyers dearly in the first period, as it was his turnover that resulted in Dwight King's early goal. His puck skills have always been inconsistent - he can singlehandedly engineer a controlled zone entry by himself on one shift, and then serve up a brainless turnover to the opposition minutes later. Against the Kings, the Flyers were forced to deal with "bad Radko Gudas" for the majority of the contest.
  • It was tough to find bright spots in the game's first forty minutes, but Michael Raffl stood out as the team's best player. Raffl forced multiple turnovers throughout the game, and drew two first period penalties. The Austrian winger remains a support possession player, one who makes smart decisions regularly and drives play, but lacks high-end scoring touch to turn those plays into goals on a regular basis. Matt Read is a similar player, and clearly his contributions are being marginalized right now. I'd hope that the coaching staff appreciates that Raffl is a useful forward even if he doesn't provide much in the way of offensive production.
  • Shayne Gostisbehere's play over the past two weeks has suffered a noticeable dropoff, both via the eye test and via even strength puck possession statistics. And after a disastrous first period, it appeared that Ghost was on his way to another poor performance. Luckily, he picked up his game in the final forty minutes, making smarter decisions in the defensive zone, with and without the puck. His style was more conservative than usual, but in a game against a Kings team that thrives on constant pressure of the puck carriers, that was the right tactic to use. After Gostisbehere's strong start, it was easy to forget that he is still a developing young defenseman, and growing pains were inevitable. The real question is whether he can adjust to the league now that they have some tape on him and are trying to exploit specific weaknesses. Ghost certainly has to talent to do so; it will all come down to execution.
  • The Flyers' penalty kill has been maybe the team's biggest problem over the past two weeks. Since the Blues game, Philadelphia opponents have scored power play goals at an unreal 58.3% efficiency rating. Obviously, the Flyers will not keep allowing goals at a coin flip rate while shorthanded, but this does point to a serious problem. Over the past four games, Philadelphia has allowed a Corsi Against per sixty minutes of shorthanded play at a rate of 137.5, versus 92.7 through the rest of the season. It's a dramatic increase, and it proves that this deluge of power play goals against is not simply the result of bad puck luck. The Flyers are bleeding shots against, and unsurprisingly, some of those shots are making their way into the net. Coach Ian Laperriere needs to either make adjustments to their formations, or clean up mistakes being made by penalty killers in order to solve this problem.
  • Most likely, the decision to roll seven defensemen will be short-lived, as I suspect it was a reaction to Michael Del Zotto's return from injury and the desire to limit Mark Streit's minutes in his return from surgery. At some point, another blueliner will have to join Brandon Manning in the press box. Looking at the even strength ice time totals from last night, the two least-used defensemen were Nick Schultz and Luke Schenn. In my opinion, one of those two will be scratched for Tuesday's game against Montreal. The smart money remains on Schenn, who has been scratched before this season and and sat on the trade block all year. Schultz, on the other hand, most likely saw his minutes limited last night because Philadelphia was trailing in the game and he is far from an offensive defenseman. Still, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Schultz being benched, especially as Radko Gudas and Evgeny Medvedev seem to be taking more and more of his minutes.
  • Dave Hakstol chose to shake up the line combinations around the midpoint of the contest, pulling Jakub Voracek off the Couturier line and reuniting him with Claude Giroux. Hopefully, that was a temporary move simply intended to spark the team, because the Couturier-Voracek combination has revitalized both players. Couturier finally was given an elite scorer on his wing, while Voracek was surely happy to just be back in the top-six rotation. Couturier spent time with Brayden Schenn and Michael Raffl after the shakeup, and while that line should be reasonably effective from a possession standpoint, I suspect their goal scoring will be minimal. With the bottom-six still floundering, the Flyers cannot afford to become a one-line team right now, and a reunion of Giroux and Voracek could cause that.
  • Concerning for the Flyers is that the schedule does not get any easier over the next few weeks despite returning East. Their next five games are against teams with actual winning records, and aside from a matchup versus the Maple Leafs, they don't play one game in January that immediately jumps off the page as an "easy" win. The Flyers played their way back into playoff contention due to a solid stretch in December, but considering the quality of competition, they could easily give back all of their gains this month. They'll need to perform significantly better than they did on this California road trip in order to stay alive in playoff race in January.